About Lowell, Massachusetts


Lowell is probably best known nowadays for three things: the childhood home of the artist James MacNeil Whistler, the birthplace of Beat writer Jack Kerouac, and the 2010 movie The Fighter starring Mark Wahlberg.  But, historically, the city's strongest claim to fame is as the site of the first large-scale industrial campus in the United States.  This arose in the 1820s due to the abundant supply of water power from Pawtucket Falls, a 32-foot drop in the Merrimack River.

The Avalonian plate splits (400million years BC)

About the time of the Cambrian mass extinction, the Avalonian tectonic plate split into two pieces.  The eastern portion underlies the British Isles, and parts of Spain and Portugal.  The western portion now consists of eastern Massachusetts, along with parts of Connecticut and Rhode Island.  The plate boundary can be traced in a series of lakes and marshes, and also follows the course of the Merrimack River between Lowell and the Atlantic Ocean.

Chelmsford, John Eliot and the "praying Indians" (1653)

When the town of Chelmsford, Massachusetts was founded in 1653, its territory included what is now the city of Lowell.  However, at the request of the minister John Eliot, this area was set aside for a community of Wamesit people who had adopted Christianity.  This spanned the area between Pawtucket Falls and the confluence of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

Industrial espionage  (1815)

In 1815, Francis Cabot Lowell toured the textile mills of Lancashire, England.  Although all visitors were prohibited from carrying writing materials into the mills, Lowell committed the equipment designs to memory, and recreated and improved upon them in a small mill in Waltham.  The Charles River did not provide sufficient power for the type of industrial establishment that Lowell and his associates envisioned, and they settled on the Merrimack River and Pawtucket Falls as the most promising site.

The Merrimack River changes course 
(14,000 years BC)

There is strong evidence that, prior to the last glacial period, the Merrimack River took a different path from Lowell: roughly southeast toward Boston Harbor.  Although that ancient course can still be traced, it was blocked by several mounds of debris dropped by the retreating ice sheet, mounds which are now hills in Billerica, Chelmsford and Lowell.

From "The Bend In The River" by John Pendergast, copyright 1991, Merrimac River Press

A canal to transport lumber for shipbuilding

In 1796, the Pawtucket Canal was completed, to bypass the falls for lumber being transported from New Hampshire to the shipyards at Newburyport.  The Wamesit people had moved away soon after King Philip's War, and the territory had now been settled by Chelmsford farmers.

A canal repurposed (1826)

By the time Lowell's associates came on the scene, the Pawtucket Canal was in disuse, having been superseded by the Middlesex Canal, which brought timber from the Merrimack River directly to Boston.  The Pawtucket canal, restored and reinforced, served as the backbone for an increasingly elaborate network of canals supplying power for many large textile mills in the same territory that had once been set aside for the "praying Indians".

A challenge to the British textile industry

Lowell's challenge to the dominant British textile industry was not only commercial, but moral as well (at the beginning, at least).  In contrast to the brutal exploitation of workers in the Lancashire mills, the Lowell mills were staffed by young women drawn from the local farming communities.  The new companies built boardinghouses for these "mill girls", which can still be seen today in the city.

Industry goes south

From the 1920's to the 1950's, Lowell experienced a period of economic decline, as one textile company after another moved its operations to the southern United States, in seach of still lower wages and operating costs.  The mill buildings lay dormant, with no economic activity that would have motivated their demolition.

Waves of immigrants

After the first few decades, commercial pressure eroded the mill owners' resolve to treat their workers humanely.  By stages, the "mill girls" were replaced by workers from successive waves of immigrants: first Irish, then French Canadian, then from Portugal and Greece.  These immigrants would work for much lower wages than the children of local farmers would.

Mills repurposed

In the 1970's, the National Park Service established the Lowell National Historical Park, to preserve the sites and artifacts of the textile industry of the 19th century.  This became the focal point for the renovation of mill buildings, for use as apartment buildings, offices, and other purposes.  A new concept at the time, the renovation and repurposing of abandoned mill buildings has become a common practice throughout New England.

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